All posts by John

Questioning Social Housing Occupancy Rules

The Social Housing Reform Act, provincial legislation that governs the operation of non-profit and government housing, establishes occupancy standards for rent-geared-to-income apartments.

It states that the smallest unit a family will be eligible for is one that allows a maximum of two occupants per bedroom. Many municipalities have established their own social housing standards, but they tend to hold to the SHRA’s ‘2 person per bedroom’ rule.

At first glance, this standard may seem reasonable.

But what about a low income couple with 3 children? Under the SHRA, they would only be eligible for a 3 bedroom apartment. In many communities, 3 bedroom social housing units are very hard to come by – there aren’t many and they don’t turn over very often.

This family might find that two bedroom apartments (which are more plentiful) will meet their needs – e.g. the parents may be willing to sleep in the living room, while their children use the bedrooms. This won’t be an option for them because of the occupancy standards.

The family will end up living in an expensive, private market apartment which will, ironically, likely be a two bedroom unit since they will have difficulty affording three bedrooms.

Social housing occupancy rules can act as a major barrier to families with children who are trying to access appropriate, affordable housing. Rules for private market housing have been challenged under the Human Rights Code, but social housing requirements have to date received only minimal scrutiny.

Some who are in favour of these standards point to healthy and safety concerns. And indeed, households with more than two persons per bedroom will find themselves in ‘Core Housing Need’ as defined by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. However, I’m not convinced there is evidence to back up this argument. There is a difference between an ideal, what we should work towards, and what is necessary for health and safety reasons. Municipal occupancy standards by-laws – which relate to health and safety – tend to be much more lenient than social housing rules.

Another argument in favour is that, without the 2 person per bedroom maximum, families will apply for smaller units, get housed and then apply for an internal transfer to a larger unit – effectively jumping the queue. If that is a concern, then address the internal transfer system.

Of course, it is a good thing to give families as much living space as possible. But governments and social housing providers shouldn’t use this goal to deny a family an apartment which the family feels meets their needs.

In the end, shouldn’t the family decide what’s best?

Smoking and the Human Rights Code

From a human rights perspective, smoking in apartment buildings can be very challenging.

Ideally, the fact that a resident smokes in his/her unit should not have any bearing on the health and quality of life of another resident. But it does. Buildings and apartments leak, ventilation systems don’t work as well as they should, and second-hand smoke regularly moves from one apartment to another. CERA has many clients with asthma, environmental sensitivities and other conditions who are being made ill because of smoke coming from other apartments.

Where a resident has a health condition that is being made worse by second-hand smoke, landlords and/or property managers will have to take steps address the problem. These can include ensuring that corridors are properly pressurized so that smell and fumes from apartments do not enter hallways, sealing any openings in the resident’s unit (such as openings from plumbing, electrical outlets, fans, etc.), and ensuring that kitchen and bathroom exhaust fans are working properly. Unfortunately, this is often not enough.

If steps to eliminate the transfer of second-hand smoke fail, can a landlord request that the resident stop smoking in his/her unit? What are the smoker’s rights?

In all likelihood, smokers’ rights are protected to some degree under the Human Rights Code. Strong arguments can be made that addiction to nicotine is a disability protected by the Code and, as the Ontario Human Rights Commission states in its Policy on Human Rights in Rental Housing, some people smoke to control the symptoms of other medical conditions. The Commission’s policy also notes that people with mental illness are disproportionately likely to be smokers.

However, even if smoking is considered a disability and associated with other Code-protected characteristics, such as mental illness, landlords are only obligated to accommodate smokers if it is safe to do so. If a resident who is smoking is making other tenants ill, the landlord could argue it would be an unreasonable health risk to permit the resident to continue smoking in his/her unit (assuming the landlord has already taken appropriate steps to minimize the transfer of second-hand smoke between units).

What about smoke-free apartment buildings? This is more problematic. In our view, an all-out smoking ban – which could significantly limit the housing options of people with this addiction – would have serious human rights implications. And unlike the example above, it would be difficult for a landlord to demonstrate that it is an unreasonable health or safety risk to permit residents to smoke anywhere in the building.

Is there a way to balance the rights of smoking and non-smoking tenants other than on an individual, case-by-case basis? One option worth considering would be to have a separately ventilated common-room for people who smoke. This could address the problem of second-hand smoke migrating from unit to unit, while maintaining the housing options of individuals who smoke.

Balancing the sometimes competing rights of individuals can be challenging – but it’s not impossible.

Further Reading:

Discrimination and Newcomers to Canada

I regularly facilitate human rights workshops for Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada (LINC) classes – and each time I’m shocked by what I hear.

In almost every class, a large proportion of the students report having experienced multiple forms of discrimination in their search for housing:

Refused because because you cannot meet a minimum income cut-off? Check. Refused because you have no Canadian credit or references? Check. Required to pay six months rent in advance? Check. Required to provide a co-signor or guarantor because you are new to the country? Check. Denied because you don’t yet have a job? Check. Refused because of the number of children in your family? Check.

Many of these students hit a wall of discriminatory barriers when they first arrived in the country. And this was on top of the fact that there are few affordable housing options. Nothing could have prepared them for this introduction to Canada.

Canadians talk about how they value diversity, that it is something that defines this country. Governments rely heavily on immigration to keep the economy and tax base healthy and they lure people with promises . But when newcomers arrive, they are abandoned to a rental housing market that is unaffordable and often inaccessible.

As a result, new Canadians are often forced to double-up for extended periods with friends and relatives, eat away at their savings in expensive short-term accommodation, or even resort to shelters.

When are governments in Canada going to figure out that ensuring access to good, affordable housing has to be an integral part of Canadian and provincial/territorial immigration policies?


In 2007, the City of Toronto approved the development of a 29 unit apartment building.

This was an as-of-right proposal – no re-zoning was required. No public consultations should have been required. The project met all municipal planning requirements. The approval process should have been relatively simple, right? Nope.

The problem, it seemed, was who was going to live there. The 29 units would be rented to low income individuals living with mental illness.

Some residents didn’t want people with mental illness moving into their neighbourhood. At a city meeting, they asked questions such as, “What kind of illnesses do these people have? What safety measures have been put in place?” The residents urged the city to delay approving the development so there could be more consultation with community members.

A term for this is “people zoning”. The other is discrimination.

People living with mental illness have the right to live wherever they want – and Canadian laws protect this right. Residents cannot decide who can and cannot live in their neighbourhood. Otherwise we have, as the Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission said in a letter to the Toronto Star on this issue, “the tyranny of the majority.”

Fortunately the City of Toronto recognized this and allowed the development to proceed.

In its comments on the decision, the HomeComing Community Choice Coalition – a group that advocates for the provision of supportive housing for people with mental illness – stated:

In making this decision City Council took a principled stand for human rights. Many councillors said emphatically that people do not get to choose their neighbours. Several councillors made specific references to the human right of people to live in communities of their choice without discrimination on the basis of disability. Others spoke of their own experiences where neighbours were initially concerned and yet, after the housing was complete, there have been no issues. Several councillors spoke of their past, positive experiences with the private developer Mahogany Investments/Alternative Living Solutions and with Houselink, who will be providing support services.

Three years later, the building is ready for occupancy.

But NIMBY continues. On the hoarding around the building there is graffiti calling the local councillor who supported the development a “traitor.” A candidate in the upcoming municipal election sent around a flyer saying that residents have a right to be angry about the supportive housing development in their neighbourhood, that they were not given a fair opportunity to express their concerns.

And which concerns were these? – their concerns about having to live near low income people with mental illnesses.

Congratulations to the City for doing the right thing and standing up for human rights.

For more information on NIMBY, check out the website of the HomeComing Community Choice Coalition.

Housing as a Medical Necessity

Housing and health are clearly linked. Nowhere is this connection more evident than for people with environmental sensitivities.

People living with environmental sensitivities (sometimes called multiple chemical sensitivities or environmental illness) can be made severely ill by the presence of very low levels of pollutants in their homes. It could be the smell from an air freshener or scented cleaning product, off-gassing paint, dust from the carpet, mold, or the smell that comes off of new cabinetry. Most of us don’t realize it, but our homes are filled with pollutants that contaminate the air we breathe.

For people living with extreme environmental sensitivities, having appropriate, “healthy” housing can mean the difference between being able to live an independent, full life, and being totally disabled.

For the past few years, CERA has been working with landlord and property managers to address the needs of tenants with environmental sensitivities and improve the air quality in apartment buildings. While this is important work that could improve the housing conditions of tens of thousands of tenants, the reality is that our efforts will never reach those with the most severe sensitivities.

People with extreme environmental sensitivities will not be able to live healthy lives in apartment buildings – there are just too many environmental variables that they cannot control.

So what can these people do?  If they have enough money, they may be able to find or make a healthy home. If they don’t – and people with severe sensitivities are often unable to work and are isolated from other supports – housing options are usually limited to the rental sector. And within this sector, a large proportion of the housing will be in apartment buildings. That means, for many of these people there are NO housing options – they will be homeless.

These people need safe housing. It is medically necessary. However, there are very few affordable homes in Canada that have been designed specifically for people with environmental sensitivities. Safe Housing Ottawa has been struggling for a number of years to build an environmentally safe housing development, but they’re not there yet.

And I don’t know of any public funds that will assist these folks to make or retrofit a home so that they can live healthy, full lives.

Governments at all levels need to recognize this glaring failure of housing, social and health policy – and fix it!

Eviction Prevention Pilot Project

Since its inception in 1999, CERA’s Eviction Prevention program has helped over 10,000 individuals and families keep their homes.  This is no small number, though the unfortunate truth remains that a much greater amount of households have been evicted over that time.  Many of these are preventable.

The vast majority of evictions are due to arrears.  For tenants who fall behind in their rent, time is crucial.  Tenants more than two months in arrears have a much tougher time receiving financial assistance.  We need to get the word out faster.  We need to get a dialogue going sooner.

So CERA is putting the finishing touches on a pilot project that will do just that.  Working with the City of Toronto and a large corporate landlord, we will soon debut the Rental Arrears Repayment Protocol.  This is a simple, formalized agreement that can be initiated by either party as soon as a tenant is one month in arrears.  Hopefully, this will reduce the need to file eviction applications at the Landlord and Tenant Board.  We’re aiming to start the Protocol in two high-rise buildings later this summer.

Fair Housing: CERA USA

CERA is unique in Canada as an organization devoted to challenging housing discrimination. South of the boarder, the landscape is very different.

In an April issue of the New Yorker magazine, there was a full page colour ad showing a “for rent” sign in front of an apartment building followed by the words, “No Kids, No Blacks, No Latinos”. The tagline was, “Discrimination is rarely this obvious, but it is just as real. Just as illegal.” The New Yorker is a major US magazine and ad space does not come cheap. Who had the resources and wherewithal to create and place this ad? –  the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the National Fair Housing Alliance.

There are over 100 fair housing organizations and councils across the United States, each with a mandate similar to CERA’s: promoting equality and non-discrimination in housing. Add to this the National Fair Housing Alliance, a consortium of fair housing organizations and state and local civil rights organizations, and the Fair Housing Advocate, an online journal devoted to housing discrimination, and you have a shockingly “un-Canadian” approach to promoting housing equality.

Fair housing organizations in the US developed out of the national Fair Housing Act – human rights legislation that specifically targets housing discrimination – and frequently receive federal government funding through HUD and its Fair Housing Initiatives program.

Canada, on the other hand, has no human rights legislation focused on housing discrimination. Instead, housing issues get lost among employment and services- related protections in provincial and territorial human rights laws. There are also no federal or provincial funding programs that target initiatives promoting housing equality. CERA, the only Canadian organization with a mandate focused on challenging housing discrimination, has no stable funding and, in fact, receives absolutely no funds to provide legal services to equality seeking individuals.

It should not be surprising then that discrimination remains “under the radar” and neglected in Canada, despite substantial research demonstrating its seriousness (see CERA’s recent report, Sorry, It’s Rented: Measuring Discrimination in Toronto’s Rental Housing Market).

Fair Housing. Canada has a lot to learn.